Why doesn't America have roundabouts?

On By George Poland
Why doesn't America have roundabouts?

The USA is known for many things, but roundabouts aren’t one of them. These free-flowing circular intersections are all the rage in Europe, yet they remain a rarity in the States. But why is this?


A brief history of the roundabout

Circular junctions existed long before the term ‘roundabout’ was coined. As far back as the 18th century, there’s been evidence of round intersections across western Europe and even over in America.

It was actually an American who’s often credited as being the first person to introduce an early version of the one-way rotary system. William Phelps Eno was responsible for the circular junction that was built in Columbus Circle, New York City in 1903.

As cars started to become commonplace during the motor revolution of the 1930s, there were varying ideas on how roundabouts should function. Old-styled traffic circles and rotaries came in many shapes and sizes but none were very safe or efficient.

It took until the 1960s for what is known as the ‘modern roundabout’ to become an established part of transport networks.

In the UK, the Transport Research Laboratory helped to standardise the roundabout and introduced the ‘priority rule’ which meant that vehicles approaching a roundabout had to give way to traffic already travelling within the junction. This change improved safety and traffic flow.

From here, modern roundabouts grew in popularity, spreading across Europe and over to Australia. Today, there are around 25,000 roundabouts in the UK and more than 30,000 in France.


America's first modern roundabout

One reason why America doesn’t have many roundabouts today is that they were late to the party. Old-fashioned traffic circles and rotaries, like the ones designed by William Phelps Eno, had already been ditched in favour of traffic lights across most states by the 1950s.

It took almost 3 decades after the ‘modern roundabout’ had become standardised in the UK for the US to build its first in Summerlin, Nevada in 1990. More followed in California, Florida, Colorado and Vermont.

Just like when roundabouts were first introduced in the UK and other parts of the world, there was pushback against their introduction in many American communities. Often the complaint was that roundabouts were too complicated and were causing more accidents than the junctions they replaced.

In fact, America’s first-ever modern roundabout would have been built in Ojai, California in 1988 had it not been for a public outcry.

Today, it is estimated that there are around 9,000 modern roundabouts in the US. Even though this is much more than what they had in the 1990s, the UK has nearly three times as many despite being around 40 times smaller.

This total isn’t spread out evenly across the USA either, with states such as Wyoming, South Dakota and North Dakota sharing no more than 50 between them whilst Florida holds over 1,000.


Driving culture

As previously mentioned, many American communities have pushed back against replacing traffic light intersections with free-flowing roundabouts.

While opposing road changes that require prolonged maintenance and disruptive roadworks is nothing out of the ordinary, it has been said that opposition to these changes in America may be stronger than in Europe because of its unique driving culture.

The US had already tried and rejected early forms of roundabout long before other countries had given them a real go. Their early commitment to angular junctions and traffic lights may be one of the reasons why there is a greater feeling of resentment towards round junctions today.

On top of this, the United States' driving culture isn’t quite the same as Europe’s. It has been argued that powerful muscle cars, wide highways and large pick-ups don’t necessarily lend themselves towards the considerate and orderly nature of a roundabout.

Journalist Stephen Beard wrote in a BBC America article: “The U.S.’s more aggressive, confrontational culture may explain why the roundabout has not been more widely adopted by Americans.”

Whether this is a fair comment or not, the queuing aspect of a roundabout is something that is proudly ingrained within British culture, which is perhaps why these junctions have taken off much better on the East side of the Atlantic.



America is a vast country, with many different states, landscapes and cultures. This large size means that even if roundabouts are successfully rolled out in one area, they might not necessarily translate as well in another. This is partly why there is an imbalance of roundabouts across the country.

In a smaller European country such as Britain, the population density is far greater and any new roundabout that is built will always be within a couple of hours from a large portion of the population. In a country the size of America, this isn’t always the case and so millions of people don’t get the opportunity to experience driving around one.

This is also reflected in American driving lessons where, in many states, learners don’t even get an opportunity to practice or learn how to use a roundabout. This only helps reinforce the resistance against their introduction.

To get roundabouts to become a common feature in the United States, there’d need to be lots of proactive pushing from transportation professionals and elected officials to get more built and accepted by the American population.


Why are roundabouts beneficial?

Generally, roundabouts are much safer than traditional intersections. Research shows that they reduce fatal crashes by about 90% and car crash injuries by about 75% even when hosting larger volumes of traffic. 

One of the main reasons for these huge safety gains is that on a roundabout it is extremely unlikely for a car to T-bone another vehicle at high speed. The circular geometry of a roundabout forces motorists to slow down in order to travel around the junction.

Roundabouts don't rely on traffic control devices that could fail or be misinterpreted by drivers travelling at 60+mph, so even when there are accidents, they are much less serious than the accidents that occur at intersections. 



To conclude, there isn’t one singular reason why America doesn’t have as many roundabouts as European countries.

A combination of factors are to blame which includes the tarnished reputation of early inefficient traffic circles, the late implementation of the modern roundabout, a different driving culture and a large widespread population.

However, despite these obstacles, there’s still hope for the roundabout in the USA which has been on a steady increase since the early 2000s. Roundabout construction in the States has picked up in recent years, particularly in suburban and rural locations where they are easy to construct.

Roundabout advocates are growing too such as Jim Brainard who is responsible for the roundabout-dense suburban city of Carmel, Indiana where more than 140 circular junctions have been built during his time as Mayor. 

Despite playing catchup, there is evidence to suggest America's roundabout culture will continue to expand over the coming decades which, can only be a good thing when considering roundabout's impressive safety record.